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Who's in a name?

THE furniture-store salesman told me that all I had to do was sign. ``Just put your signature right there,'' he said, pointing with his diamond-glittering ring finger to a space on the loan application. His voice was nasal and sophisticated. He acted as if my signature was a minor and tiresome formality. He'd seen so many names on so many forms, what was one more? I held his ball point pen just above the paper. I feigned reading the minuscule print that overshadowed the blank line awaiting my personal scrawl. I glanced at all of the neatly filled in spaces containing the bland collection of facts that mirrored my existence. They told the objective tale of a modestly successful, reasonably steady worker. Any credit evaluator worth his or her salt would approve these acceptable statistics without a qualm. The only trace of distinction I could add to the lifeless document would be my signature. By signing on the bottom line I would give substance and credibility to an otherwise meaningless list.

No credit application, no form, no bit of bureaucratic trivia has a whit of value without a person's signature. A signature is a potent personal characteristic. With it, you can eat dinner at the Russian Tea Room, buy Christmas gifts at Neiman-Marcus, fly to Tahiti, and rest at bed and breakfast inns from Rockport, Mass., to Mendocino, Calif.

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Signing for a credit application is not the same as putting your name on, say, a peace treaty or a declaration of independence. John Hancock, whose name is synonymous with signature, is reputed to have signed America's seminal document with a flourish, ``So that even the King will be able to read it.'' His momentary gesture of ego earned his penmanship immortality.

I once held a paper in my hand that Hitler had signed. It was a small piece of history, approving a schedule or a promotion or else something equally mundane. When brought to the attention of a dealer in rare documents, the buyer for famous signatures advised, ``It's not just the signature that's important. The name has value, sure, but there has to be substance to the document.'' A signature, it seems, must have context.

A book-collector friend of mine thirsts for volumes with authors' signed dedications. ``The real coup,'' he tells me, ``is to get a first edition from a Hemingway or a Wharton, and have it inscribed to their mothers. Now that's a signature. That's a one-of-a-kind.'' How many mothers, after all, can a writer have?

In the red-bricked heart of Atlanta, Emory University houses the Alexander H. Stephens collection. As vice-president of the Confederacy, Stephens is accused of having had nefarious dealings with the king of states' rights busters, Abraham Lincoln. A decade ago I pawed through Stephens's correspondence and found a letter with Mr. Lincoln's signature. The Union President had thanked Stephens for his invitation to meet at Hampton Roads, Va., but declined. He said he appreciated Stephens's zeal for peace, but had insisted that the South must stop its senseless rebellion before the peace process could begin. Lincoln jotted a cordial parting, then signed his name, putting an end to peace hopes until the South was utterly destroyed.

Signatures give substance and feeling to otherwise colorless documents. Holding the Lincoln letter in my hand was more than just a chore of idle research. It was touching history. The same letter can be found in a number of anthologies, but the experience is not the same.

A person's signature indicates responsibility. It shows that we are willing to accept the consequences of this or that document. It declares to the world that we are aware, that we are cognizant, awake, alive; if only for the moment, if only to sign away our privileges through a power-of-attorney letter.

We are bound by our signatures. They commit us to insurance agreements and employment obligations. They compel us to punch clocks and pay bills. It's rare when you can get away from the responsibilities imposed by a quick splash of ink.

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Sometimes you can suspend the requirements imposed by your other signatures. When I want to see the great California gray whales mosey southward past the San Francisco Bay, I need to join a charter boat's venture onto the Pacific. Before I step from the dock, I have to affix my name to a paper that says if I fall overboard, I am my own fool. For those brief hours bobbing atop the ocean staring at those magnificent cetaceans, I am released from all previous signatory obligations.

A signature is the ultimate distinction, the final mark of who we are. If we sign pamphlets and letters and petitions for this or that cause, it tells a story about us. If we scribble our names to complete deals or mergers or stock options, it tells just as clear a story. The history of signature unveils as much about a heart as it does a mind.

The furniture-store salesman was getting impatient. He wanted to get back on the floor and sell his wares. I took a deep breath and signed. I handed him the form, his commission secured by the power of my signature. He didn't even glance at it. It was merely another name, another triviality finally dispensed with.

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